Investigation clears gay Fort Worth teacher

Kristopher Franks set to return to work Friday after 4-day leave stemming from allegations of improper behavior

FWISD School board member Carlos Vasquez

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — Gay Western Hills High School teacher Kristopher Franks, put on paid administrative leave on Monday, Sept. 26, following allegations of improper behavior, has been cleared of all allegations and was set to return to work today (Friday, Sept. 30).

Franks is the teacher who  became the target of ire from the religious right after he sent a student in his German 1 class to the principal’s office for saying in class that as a Christian he believed “homosexuality is wrong.” The school’s assistance principal then suspended the student, setting off a controversy that made headlines around the country.

That student, freshman Dakota Ary, and his mother enlisted the assistance of Liberty Counsel attorney Matt Krause in fighting the suspension on the grounds that Franks and the school had violated Ary’s right to freedom of speech.

District officials quickly reversed their decision, lifting the suspension.

But Steven Poole, deputy executive director for the United Educators Association of Texas, a teachers union, said Tuesday, Sept. 27, that the allegations leading to Franks being put on leave were unrelated to the incident with Ary.

Franks, who had not spoken to the press previously on the advice of his union representative, said Thursday afternoon that he had just met with Fort Worth Independent School District administrators, who told him the nearly weeklong investigation had determined that the allegations against him were unfounded. He did not elaborate on the substance of those allegations.

Franks also said administrators had given him the option of returning to teach at Western Hills High or transferring to another school in the district.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet what I’m going to do,” Franks told Dallas Voice by phone Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to go back to work tomorrow, and I will talk to my boss [the district’s world languages supervisor], and see what she says and decide what’s the best thing to ­do from there.”

FWISD Board of Trustees member Dr. Carlos Vasquez told Dallas Voice in a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 28, that any time allegations are made against a teacher, those allegations have to be investigated, and it is routine for the teacher in question to be placed on paid administrative leave.

Franks said Thursday that he was pleased with the outcome of the investigation, carried out by an independent investigator, and that interim FWISD Supt. Walter Dansby was “very nice” when they spoke.

“I think they did the right thing,” Franks said. “I can go back to work, which is great. But now I just have to figure out how to fix the damage this whole thing has done to my personal life.”

Franks said since the investigation is closed, he is no longer being represented by a union attorney. He has, instead, retained the services of attorney Stephen Gordon to “represent me on any aspects of this whole thing going forward.”

He also indicated that he and Gordon would be discussing what possible actions he might take against “those people who have lied and made false allegations against me.”

While Franks had previously declined to speak to the media, Daokta Ary, his mother and Krause as their attorney went immediately to the press, telling their side of the story in several TV interviews and saying Franks and the school had violated the student’s right to freedom of speech. The case quickly became a rallying point for the religious right.

Krause this week told Dallas Voice that he and his clients are satisfied with school officials’ decision to rescind the unexcused absences the suspension left on Ary’s record, but “we would still like for them [school officials] to completely vindicate him and say that he did nothing wrong. He should never have been written up for an infraction. He should never have been sent to the office, and he should never have been suspended.”

Ary said in  media interviews that he made the comment quietly to a classmate sitting next to him in response to a discussion going on in the class at the time.

Dakota Ary

But Franks told friends shortly after the incident that there was no discussion involving homosexuality at the time, and that Ary made the comment loudly while looking directly at Franks.

Franks also told friends that the comment was only the latest in an ongoing series of incidents in which Ary and a group of three of his friends have made anti-gay comments to and about him.

Franks told friends that the harassment by Ary and his friends began several weeks ago after Franks, who also teaches sociology, posted on the “World Wall” in his classroom a photo, taken from the German news magazine Stern, of two men kissing. The photo was ripped off the wall and torn in two at some point during Ary’s class, and Franks told friends he believes that Ary or one of his friends tore up the photo.

During a later sociology class students upset that the photo had been torn up replaced it with a hand-drawn picture, and another student then covered that picture with a page bearing a hand-written biblical scripture from Leviticus calling sex between two men an abomination.

Franks told friends that since that incident, Ary and his friends had continued to make derogatory and harassing comments.

Franks’ friends also said that the teacher, a Fulbright scholar, has been the target of anti-gay harassment for at least the last two years, including having hateful messages left in his classroom and, in one case, having his car vandalized.

FWISD teacher Martin Vann, spokesman for the group LGBTQ S.A.V.E.S. that was formed about a year ago to help protect students and teachers in the district from anti-gay discrimination and bullying, said that Franks told his version of the incident last week, before the current investigation was launched and Franks was required to sign a statement saying he would not discuss the incident with other teachers, administrators, parents or students. Vann said Franks denied getting angry and yelling at Ary, as Ary had said, and reiterated that Ary’s comments were not pertinent to any discussion in the class at the time.

Vann said Franks told him that another student had asked him what the German word for “Christian” was, and how, if he moved to Germany, he could find an English translation of the Bible. That’s when, Franks told Vann, Ary looked directly at him and said loudly that as a Christian, he believes homosexuality is wrong.

It was not, Franks told Vann, a simple statement of belief or opinion but rather an intentional effort to insult and harass the teacher that Ary perceived to be gay.

Krause this week again said that Ary did not direct his remark in class that day at Franks, and that Ary had nothing to do with tearing down the photo of the men kissing.

The attorney also said that Ary told him he did not know to whom Franks was referring when he talked about Ary’s “three friends.”

The Franks case comes in the wake of months of scandal over allegations by teachers that administrators routinely allowed some teachers and administrators to harass and bully students and other teachers, and that teachers who complained often faced retaliation.

Vasquez, who is openly gay, said Wednesday that he believed the Franks investigation would be fair, that he would watch the situation closely “to make sure all the proper procedures are followed,” and that he believed Dansby would handle the situation fairly.

“Considering all the problems we’ve had, I know he [Dansby] will be watching this closely,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez said it is the school district’s responsibility to make sure there is “no harassment in our schools, whether it’s from the teacher to the student, or student to student or even student to teacher. I know that happens, sometimes, too.

“There should be no harassment whatsoever in our schools,” Vasquez , himself a former teacher, said.

Fort Worth ISD has been credited with having one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in the state, having adopted individual policies within the last year to include prohibitions against harassment and bullying, including that based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, for both teachers and students.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 30, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

GSA supporters to protest outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi on Friday

Nikki Peet

A pro-equality demonstration is planned Friday outside Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, where officials say they’ll eliminate all non-curricular clubs to avoid allowing a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance.

Paul Rodriguez, president of the GSA at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said he’s expecting more than 300 people to attend the protest.

Rodriguez has been working with 17-year-old Flour Bluff student Nikki Peet since November to launch the GSA. After the Flour Bluff principal refused to allow the GSA, district officials announced they’ll bar all non-curricular clubs from meeting on campus — including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — to avoid running afowl of the federal Equal Access Act.

“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Rodriguez told Instant Tea. “I couldn’t believe that an administration of a public school would actually go to that length to show hatred, to show intolerance. It’s just appalling.”

Rodriguez said supporters of the GSA have contacted both Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are investigating. But the goal of the protest is to convince district officials to change their minds.

“As far as Nikki and her supporters go, they were very nervous about going to school today, because they don’t know what kind of hostility or bullying they’re going to face,” Rodriguez said. “They’re afraid they’re going to get blamed for all the non-curricular clubs not being allow to meet. We’re hoping to redirect that anger to where it really belongs. If we can get all those people on board and join us in this fight for equality, that would just be awesome.

“We want equality to rein at Flour Bluff,” he added. “We want them to open their eyes and realize that everyone is human, everyone can co-exist. You don’t have to like us, you don’t have to agree with us, but you do have to co-exist with us.”

For more information on the protest, go here.

—  John Wright

Spokesman says DISD too busy with budget cuts to discuss trangender homecoming issue

A rally in support of Andy Moreno at North Dallas High School in October. Since then we haven’t heard much from DISD, or the LGBT community, about trying to come up with a policy that would avoid such controversies in the future.

Here’s the reply we received late Monday from DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander, after we inquired about whether district officials have discussed a possible policy change related to gender and homecoming elections in response to last year’s controversy at North Dallas High School:

“I don’t know if there have been additional discussions regarding that particular issue. Most of our time right now is devoted to paying attention to what is taking place in Austin and planning for next year’s budget accordingly. A $253 million budget deficit would wipe out a lot of things in our school district. If I hear of something, I’ll let you know.”

We certainly sympathize with Dahlander and other DISD officials as they try to deal with the impending budget crisis, but we also hope his statement indicates that the district is open to taking up the transgender homecoming issue as soon as possible. After all, it’s been almost five months since transgender girl Andy Moreno was denied a chance to run for homecoming queen at NDHS. The district should be commended for, in the meantime, passing a fully inclusive anti-bullying policy that is the first of its kind in the state. But this doesn’t mean the district’s work — or the LGBT community’s work — is done. For one thing, we need to ensure that the anti-bullying policy is properly implemented and enforced. And for another, while the anti-bullying policy includes gender identity and expression, the district’s employment nondiscrimination policy does not. In other words, it’s now against DISD policy for a student to bully another student for being transgender, but it’s not against DISD policy for the district to fire a teacher for being transgender. And, apparently, it isn’t against DISD policy for an administrator to discriminate against a student for being transgender, as in the case of Andy Moreno. On Tuesday night I sat in a Stonewall Democrats meeting and listened to a gay student talk about the resistance he’s faced from administrators in trying to establish a GSA at Woodrow Wilson High School. So while the budget situation is critical, let’s also remember that for some LGBTQA youth, the issues we’re raising could be a matter of life and death.

—  John Wright

FWISD to update bullying policy

Director of counseling says officials did not realize sexual orientation didn’t include gender identity, expression, and applauds new bullying awareness campaign

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Report nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — When the Dallas Independent School District was lauded recently for becoming the first school district in the state to approve an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy, officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District reacted with consternation.
The Fort Worth District, officials said, had passed such a policy months before, in March.

But the problem, Kathryn Everest, director of guidance and counseling for the Fort Worth district, said this week, was that “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

And what school officials didn’t know was that the term “sexual orientation” does not include issues of gender identity and gender expression, Everest said.

“Our policy protects all students,” Everest said, adding that she initially believed simply saying “all students” would be adequate. But she said she understands the need for more specific wording after discussion with those in the community advocating for changes in the policy.

Everest said that she met Monday afternoon, Nov. 22, with gay Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns and Jon Nelson of Fairness Fort Worth. Both men, she said, have pledged to help the district fine-tune the wording of its policies.

“We want to make it plain that everyone is included. Now that we have found out what we didn’t know — that sexual orientation doesn’t include gender identity and gender expression — we will make those changes. We’re not fighting it, and we’re not intimidated by it. We just didn’t know,” Everest said.

She added that the policy in question relates specifically to students. The district also has a mirror policy protecting faculty and staff members, and it, too, will be updated, Everest said.

“We want our policies to align with the city of Fort Worth’s policy,” she said. The Fort Worth City Council voted last year to amend its nondiscrimination ordinance, which already included protections based on sexual orientation, to include specific protections based on gender identity and gender expression.

Another point of confusion centered on the wording of Fort Worth’s anti-bullying policy itself. The policy defines bullying, gives examples and outlines the procedure for reporting incidences of bullying and for investigating those reports. But it does not enumerate specific groups protected under the policy, as the Dallas ISD policy does.

Everest explained this week that the Fort Worth ISD’s “Freedom from Bullying” policy is an extension of the district’s “Freedom from Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Policy, which reads:

“The District prohibits discrimination including harassment, against any student on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or on any other basis prohibited by law, that adversely affects the student.”

Everest said FWISD officials now recognize that, technicalities aside, the bullying policy should also include that wording — with the addition of gender identity and gender expression — so that it is clear.

Although gender identity and gender expression were not among the protected categories listed, evidence of the district’s intention to provide protections based on those categories exists in the discrimination policy, under the category of examples:

“Examples of prohibited harassment  may include offensive or derogatory language directed at another person’s religious beliefs or practices, accent, skin color, gender identity or need for accommodation … .”

‘It’s not okay’

While the Fort Worth school district may be lagging behind the Dallas ISD in perfecting the wording of its nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies, Fort Worth is several steps ahead of Dallas when it comes to it’s anti-bullying campaign, Everest said.

The district implemented the “It’s not okay” campaign at the beginning of the current school year, focusing each month on a different aspect of harassment. Topics are “bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, teen dating violence, suicidal thinking, sexual harassment, use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and gangs.

The campaign includes efforts to explain each topic and to promote the district’s procedures for reporting and investigating offenses. A primary component, Everest said, is the “Friends 4 Life” hotline that anyone can call to report specific incidents or concerns. Students discovered to be targets of bullying or harassment are paired with counselors who work with them and help them find other resources if necessary, Everest said.

She said students had input in designing the campaign, helping choose the topics and suggesting ways to address each one. The district also has designed posters on each topic to be displayed in schools, as well as billboards that are going up each month around the city.

“By the end of the school year, we will have billboards across the city addressing each one of these topics,” Everest said. “There is a kind of entrenched generational acceptance of certain kinds of harassment and bullying — the idea that it’s just what kids do, and you need to get over it and move on. That’s what we have to change. We have to say to the whole world that it’s not OK.

“And this [campaign] is not just a flash in the pan, not just a one-time thing,” Everest continued. Our goal is to make it an ongoing program, something that is deep and broad and addresses all the angles. That’s how you change the social norms. That’s how you stop the bullying.”

She added, “This is all a learning process for us. We are making corrections and improvements as we go along. We thought we were covering everything, and now that we know we didn’t, we will make the changes we need to make.

“Our goal is to make our entire educational community as safe as possible — our students, our faculty and our staff. And we will do what we need to do to make that happen.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens